Irish Rail urgently needs new fleet as capacity set to run out on commuter routes
A massive surge in demand has led to overcrowding on busy commuter routes
There will be no space for additional passengers to travel on peak train services around Dublin in less than three years unless dozens of additional carriages are in service.
A massive surge in demand has led to overcrowding on busy morning and evening commuter routes, and Irish Rail says it has to order new fleet by the end of 2018 or risk having no additional capacity from early 2021.
The State transport company is considering leasing up to 70 carriages, which would provide 5,500 additional journeys. If approved, it hopes to begin procuring these at the end of the year, with a view to having them in service by the end of 2020.
But it also needs to expand the existing fleet of 629 carriages, with the National Development Plan sanctioning investment in 300 new vehicles. The first order of 100 is likely to be in place by next year, but they will take up to three years to deliver.
"We have natural growth and it's looking like being in excess of 6pc this year," an Irish Rail spokesman said.
"We have a capacity issue right now which needs to be resolved. The pressure on existing capacity is growing all the time and if we get to a situation where in late 2020 or early 2021 (there is no additional fleet), there will be nowhere for people to go.
"You start to get an artificial constraint. You do get to a point where, at the busiest times, trains are full and the highest-capacity mode (rail) can't take any more."
Irish Rail operates commuter, Dart and inter-city services and last year completed 45.51 million passenger journeys across the country, slightly above the 2007 peak.
More than 32 million of these were into and around Dublin.
Numbers have grown in recent years, up 8pc in 2016 and 6pc last year, with similar growth forecast for 2018. This has resulted in capacity becoming an issue, with complaints of overcrowding on commuter trains and Dart services.
Irish Rail had proposed refurbishing 28 rail carriages that had entered service in 1998 and held in storage since 2012, at an estimated cost of around €12m. However, only one firm bid to complete the works at a cost in excess of €30m, so the upgrade has been scrapped.
In a letter to Labour Party TD Joan Burton, the National Transport Authority (NTA) said it was considering buying or leasing second-hand vehicles to provide additional capacity in the short term, with expressions of interest for new fleet likely to be sought by the end of the year, and an order placed in 2019.
Irish Rail said while the Irish system operated on a different gauge from the UK and other European countries, carriages could be altered to serve here. They added the leasing market was "very active" and that leased carriages could be in service by the end of 2020.
Between 40 and 70 are expected to be sought, which would primarily operate on the Kildare, Maynooth and northern line commuter belt. A decision will be made in the coming weeks following discussions with the NTA and Department of Transport.
However, new carriages will take longer to deliver. It is not clear how many of the 300 will be electric and how many hybrid, with a decision expected by the end of the year. The investment forms part of an upgrade of the rail network around the capital, including electrification of the lines to Maynooth, Hazelhatch and Drogheda over time.